real estate

Property taxes too high? Get help

Third-party representation also can save homeowners time. Homeowners can mail in an initial appeal. But if the appeal is denied, the next step is usually to request an in-person hearing.

Clarence Cooper is director of client services at O'Connor & Associates, a real estate consulting firm in Houston that helps homeowners protest their assessments.

He says it's routine for companies like his to attend these hearings on behalf of clients. This is especially helpful for owners who are protesting taxes on a property located in a county away from where they live.

"We save property owners the time and frustration of having to handle the protest themselves," he says.

The drawbacks

While companies that help with property tax appeals can trim homeowner taxes, they also take a huge chunk of any savings gained.

Fees for firms paid on a contingency vary widely, with most charging between 15 percent and 50 percent of the tax savings from the first year, according to Sid Davis, author of "The First-Time Homeowner's Survival Guide."

"It depends on the company you use and the area in question," Davis says. "Personally, I'd try not to go higher than 30 percent, with no money due upfront."

Companies typically bill property owners once the final judgment is made, although the tax itself may not be due for several more months. So, a homeowner who wins a protest could receive an invoice that's payable within days even though the property's taxes are not due until the end of the year.

In addition to charging a percentage of any tax savings, some attorneys and companies also charge a retainer fee before accepting a client. For example, Lynch's firm charges $100.

This money may be nonrefundable, with no guarantee the homeowner will receive any tax savings.

DIY approach

In light of the costs associated with third-party help, some homeowners -- particularly in tax districts that have a straightforward appeals process -- may find it easier and cheaper to fix property taxes on their own.

Aimee Bennett, a homeowner in Castle Rock, Colo., says she successfully appealed her property taxes without outside help.

“Every other time I filed an appeal, I did it myself. It's not that difficult.”

"When I received my tax notice in the mail, it looked too high," she says. "But the notice spelled out exactly what I needed to do to appeal. My local government Web site also listed what I needed."

Bennett says she found comparable sales figures for homes similar to her own. She researched these homes' market values during the district's reappraisal period and looked up tax records to find their assessed values.

Bennett noticed the assessments on the other homes were lower than on hers, so she believed she had a strong case for appeal.

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"I wrote up my information in a Word document, printed it, and sent it with the correct appeals form, all by the deadline," she says.

Within three months, Bennett received a response.

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